Jon Spira-Savett
Jon Spira-Savett

Wholeness, Not Brokenness: What Simone Biles Actually Taught Us

Simone Biles, 2016 Olympics, Photo by Julian Finney/Getty published on texasmonthly.com
Simone Biles, 2016 Olympics, Photo by Julian Finney/Getty published on texasmonthly.com

I don’t have a great track record with Olympics-related sermons. During the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I talked about the Olympic spirit and the language in our prayers of shalom al kol yoshvei tevel, peace for everyone on earth, and how the Olympics might contribute to that. There was really nothing wrong with the D’var Torah, except that two weeks later the Russians invadedCrimea and set off the further crisis with Ukraine. So my Torah-by-the-events-of-the-week turned out to be not so on the nose.

So I thought this year while the Olympics are going on, I would start with a snippet of a not-so-good D’var Torah, so I could criticize myself and then give you a better one.

Everyone by now knows one story of the week involving two incredible and admirable young women who are gymnasts representing the United States: Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee. Simone Biles is the pathbreaking gymnast and the gold medal favorite who withdrew during the team competition, and Sunisa Lee won the gold medal in the individual all-around, and has an incredible story too as a Hmong-American from my home town. There a lot to dig into spiritually from this week in gymnastics.

So first off: the bad D’var Torah. We read in the parasha today about Moshe breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the shnei luchot habrit שְׁנֵי לוּחוֹת הַבְּרִית, when he came down from Mt. Sinai and saw the Golden Calf. Then he went back up the mountain and at God’s direction fashioned a new set of tablets, and in the Talmud Rav Yosef says that Moshe was told to put the broken tablets in the ark along with the new ones. Rashi says the broken ones were set down under the new ones, like a foundation for them. Luchot v’shivrei luchot לוּחוֹת וְשִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת — tablets and broken tablets together in one holy ark.

And Rabbi Yudah ben Lakish teaches it differently: that there were actually two arks, one with each set of tablets, and when Israel had to go out to battle they would take with them the ark with the broken tablets, and the whole ones would stay back in the fixed Sanctuary.

And all of this teaches us to value brokenness and keep it with us, and not judge people when they are not whole. Simone Biles by withdrawing in the way she did, and trying to communicate about what it’s like to be out of alignment between body and mind, and not to be able to compete at her level because of her mental health — she is helping us appreciate brokenness, and she is inviting all of us to a greater understanding of anyone going through a period of brokenness.

End of D’var Torah #1.

It’s not that this is a totally bad D’var Torah, but I just don’t think it has that much to do with Simone Biles. There is nothing at all about her that is broken. At least not in any way I have heard or that I am entitled to say. Maybe spectators of the Olympics like us are pulled to a brokenness story, so instead of judging her with disappointment for not “powering through” or giving us the chance to watch her, we can feel badly for her and feel hope for her. But this doesn’t ring true to me at all. All week Simone Biles has been a teacher, in even more ways than I think she realizes, at least for me. If she wants to talk in terms of broken that’s for her and no one else to say.

And furthermore, we are not entitled to describe anyone else who suffers psychologically or spiritually or physically as broken. That’s not how this metaphor works or helps. I can be broken, I can say that about myself. I can listen when you say to me this is how you feel, what you are experiencing. But I don’t get to say that you are.

The idea of broken, even in the spirit of the broken tablets, is still too often patronizing, too often a judgment — maybe not the harshest but still a judgment. It might and often does contain acceptance and love, but often it implies a vision of wholeness that is not true and not right to lay on someone else. And often, when we say broken, we expect a story that ends with fixing, by you yourself or you with my help.

But Simone Biles is not broken. So wondering what it will be like when she fixes her problem, or gets help to fix it, is completely the wrong way to look at this week.

So what is the right D’var Torah? It does have to do with the two sets of tablets, and it starts where the Olympics do, with my own favorite Greek, my gold medal Greek, the philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle’s work The Nicomachean Ethics explores human excellence and happiness. Aristotle was brought into Talmudic Judaism about 1500 years later by his biggest Jewish fanboy, Maimonides, and in Hebrew the terms are middot מִדוֹת for excellences, and then for happiness it’s probably shalom שָׁלוֹם, or shlaymut שְׁלֵמוּת — happiness is actually wholeness. This wholeness is the highest human good, according to Aristotle.

Aristotle analyzes happiness and he never quite gets to an firm definition, because he sees wholeness as having several dimensions — and Simone Biles this week told us about all of them.

There is the idea of wholeness as having as an individual the experience of all of one’s own personnal excellences — physical and intellectual and social and emotional — fully developed and in use all at once.

Which might be a very personal experience, or something between you and God; or it might be an experience that delights and serves the group or the nation. There might be a dimension of wholeness, Aristotle wonders, that is fundamentally about serving the group —  your wholeness helping make the group or the nation more excellent in one way, or in every way.

There is an aspect of wholeness in Aristotle, not the main thing but maybe part of it, that includes having a good reputation in the eyes of others or the eyes of history. From watching or studying people who achieve wholeness through their own excellences, the rest of us get a dim understanding of wholeness that motivates us to pursue our own excellence.

Neither Aristotle as a philosopher or Maimonides as a rabbi quite decided which of these is the real wholeness. Or whether being whole is only real if you achieve it and keep it, or if it is some place you arrive again and again if you learn how. If it has to be present always, or just something you strive for from time to time.

From Simone Biles this week we learned so much about wholeness, so much more than we did about brokenness. In her pursuit of athletic excellence she told us about what it is — the wholeness she has experienced at times, and the wholeness she was seeking. We got a dim glimpse of this highest human good from one example.

Ms. Biles told us what it is like to have the unifying experience of every part of her body in motion, her arms and legs, in the air, with the air, in relation to the ground below, knowing the ground without seeing it or touching it, and being to perceive all of this at once. To me it sounds mystical, what do I know. She pinpointed the difference between that kind of wholeness, and just physically jumping and spinning and landing in a skilled way.

She told us about knowing that she could not actually attain her excellence without a balance between delighting us and attaining that unifying experience within and the sense of self that comes with it. She has been trying to explain that you get to a certain level beyond the mechanical skill, when paradoxically you can’t do the mechanical thing any more without the wholeness you want and you value.

Simone Biles told us and showed us how the team matters — how when you are not whole and you are even discombulated, you can still know how to make decisions that are for the team, and you might just know integrally that you should risk something of yourself and your reputation in order to serve the team.

And she told us very clearly that her decision to withdraw had nothing to do with losing, or with an embarrassing performance. A couple days ago Simone posted: “I’ve had plenty of bad perfomances throughout my career and finished the competition. I simply got so lost my safety was at risk as well as a team medal.”

Simone Biles may not have attained wholeness this week for herself, but all of this shows that she has attained it before, far more than the count of her medals. The medals are a part of it and essential to it, but they are just the platform, the (broken?) tablets underneath the whole tablets. She showed us what wholeness is like so profoundly and told us about times she has had it. And she taught us under incredibly difficult conditions — and that itself is another excellence that just knocks me down. As a nonathlete and a non-competing person, I think I understand more about wholeness generally and what it must be like to have it. And whenever I think of the conundrums of human excellence and happiness and wholeness from now on, I will always think of this week and of Simone Biles as one of my most important teachers.

The same passage in the Talmud about the broken tablets says that from this we learn to honor someone who once was a great Torah scholar even if they are not actively displaying that anymore. Anyone who has attained wholeness and excellence, that is always a part of them and should always be part of our regard for them.

And the tablets and the gymnast made me think about the congregant who shared with me a few years ago a deep experience of spiritual wholeness and unity that inspires him even though it is gone and he doesn’t know how to get it back, but it stays with him through difficult times. And they make me think about the great American who we lost this week, the civil rights activist Robert Moses, who has a parallel story to Simone Biles about the unity of action and position and fame and team, and the way one’s moment in history crests and ebbs.

Yearning for wholeness, seeking it for the first time or seeking it again, not always having it — these are not the same as being broken.

There are parts of Simone Biles’ story and American gymnastics that are definitely broken. Things that continue to be broken and need to be broken apart once and for all: pressure and judgment and abuse particularly of young women and girls, double standards of scrutiny that are not applied to someone like Novak Djokovic this week. Simone Biles will help break them and remake them, as gymnast Dominique Dawes and others have been doing — just as the midrash praises Moses for breaking the tablets even though he himself was not broken.

We’re wrong about brokenness when we say you are broken, or he is or she is or they are, when that’s not where the brokenness is. We’re wrong about brokenness when we impose it rather than list for it. We’re wrong about brokenness when we limit it to those in a certain set of categories who are suffering right now, as though all the others of us are therefore whole. That’s why Dvar Torah #1 wasn’t good enough. Everywhere we look there are both luchot v’shivrei luchot, brokenness alongside glimpses of wholeness, often in the very same stories and the very same people.

Simone Biles is not any more broken this week than you or I, and in many ways she may be more whole than we are, even more so than she realizes. She has been our Aristotle this Olympic week, showing us glimpses of shleimut, of wholeness. The Torah describes the original tablets as asher shibarta אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ, literally “the ones that you (Moshe) broke” — and the midrash reworks that asher as yasher koach, good for you for breaking them, for helping us focus on what brokenness is and isn’t, and what wholeness can be. Yasher koach, may that strength of yours continue to be straight, on the beam and the vault, in your spirit and your mind. To Simone Biles, to Sunisa Lee and Team USA, yasher koach, in every sense of those words.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett serves the Jewish community of southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. He blogs at rabbijon.net and Rabbi Jon’s Podcasts are available through Apple and Podbean. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the organizer of howtobepresident.org, an initiative to transform how we choose a president by asking better questions.
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